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Arts & Culture
Fri May 16, 2014
Want To Play The Carillon? Choices Are Slim, But KU Is One
It was a beautiful Wednesday morning at the University of Kansas and the chimes inside the school's Campanile rang out "Ode to Joy" across the lush campus.
And then they started clanking, an odd off-beat, minor clank. Students passing by looked at each other, a little worried.
"It is broken?" one asked.
No, just student Amanda Schultz, trying to make 53 bells do a blues slide on the carillon.
There are only handful of schools in the country to learn the carillon, a tall organ-like instrument that controls the bells in a bell tower, or campanile.
Most schools have some sort of bell tower on campus, mostly run by computer program or recording every quarter-hour. At KU, the time chimes by computer, but otherwise, it's all hands and feet.
The instrument itself is about 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide, with three sets of broomstick-like pedals that run chest and waist height and across the floor. It's sort of like a piano with more keys and played with fists, not fingers.
Elizabeth Berghout is an assistant professor of music and has been the main carillon teacher since 2000. She takes six students a semester and they each come for an hour-long weekly private lesson up in the bell tower.
There's a practice carillon about 40 steps up, and the real one another four flights more in a soundproof square — where everyone can hear your mistakes.
"I love it," Berghout said looking out the windows onto the stadium. "It's almost like a different world. Everyone hears what I play, but sometimes it's easy to forget about that when I'm playing the bells and focusing on the music."
She calls herself the "sound background to campus," playing longer concerts Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons and Sunday evenings.
Mostly it's well-known tunes like the alma mater, "Crimson and Blue," which she'll play this weekend at KU's graduation, as well as biblical tunes (sometimes written by her husband) and seasonal songs.
One year, Berghout teamed up with a school group to have a "Guess That Tune" competition on the bells and she had to learn tunes like "Mmmbop" by Hanson, and "Time After Time," by Cyndi Lauper.
Students tend to choose musicals and popular music. Schultz, 28, is taking a carillon class for fun before starting graduate school next fall. She became interested in playing because she had a friend who took the class, and remembered the chiming from trips to campus when she was little.
Schultz plays a mean "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music, and is learning a piece from the movie The Firm.
"The other day, I was up here playing "A Whole New World" from Aladdin, and I had the windows up and I could hear people applauding," Schultz said. "So that was fun."
And sometimes, no one knows who is playing.
Several students and alumni mentioned that when it snows, they occasionally hear "What a Wonderful World" ring out softly. Pay attention to the world passing by, it seems to say as students hurry by with books and plans on their mind. Time is fleeting.
Berghout says it's not her at the keyboard.
"Any student or alumni with the key can come and practice when they want," she said. "As long as the bells are open, they can play."
Dawn Fallik is a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Kansas.